For the past two days I’ve been stymied about what to write for today’s posting. Then this morning, as I sat at the computer, organizing my array of blogs as bookmarks, an idea came: Why not share something about my manuscript for a novel about four ex-nuns?
An old adage is to “write what you know.” And I do know something about nuns and ex-nuns. Also, I know something about the thought process that can lead to suicide because in the 1970s I’d struggled with those thoughts.
The story developed from my wanting to explore what a suicide does to the family and friends left bereft and angered by the self-inflicted death of a loved one. As the main characters, I envisioned four ex-nuns, the mother of one of them, and a priest.
Because most people expect them to be women of deep faith.
But what if the suicide of a beloved adult child of one of them tests that faith? What will moor them? How will the death affect their relationships? Who else, beyond the four of them, will be affected by death and by the changes within these women and their history with one another?
I began working on this manuscript in the late 1980s, after I became a freelance line editor, copy editor, and curriculum developer. In 1984, at the age of forty-eight, I’d resigned from a well-paying and demanding position as the manager of the curriculum department at Winston Press. One of the reasons for my resignation was that I wanted time to write my own manuscripts.
My freelance days were full-time busy with projects and with teaching evening courses on professional editing at several different junior colleges and universities in the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. Nevertheless, each morning after breakfast, I’d enter my home office and write creatively for an hour. That led to two romances that never saw publication because, after all, what did I know of romance?
Then the idea for the ex-nun story came to me. I wrote the first draft in a year, but laid it aside because the writing seemed uninspired. However, the manuscript taught me a great deal about writing. Its most important lesson was to let characters take hold of a story and direct it to its end.
I hadn’t known that could happen until one morning when I came, unwillingly, to my Apple computer to write a new chapter with a new voice. Each chapter of the draft was in the voice of one of the ex-nuns. Three of them had already moved the story forward, but the fourth—Ruth—had been given no chapters of her own. The truth was that I’d developed an antipathy toward her because of what the other characters had said about her.
Here's what happened that day:
Reluctantly, I began Ruth’s chapter with her arrival at the protagonist’s home. An awkward conversation ensued between them. Ruth started to say something, and I suddenly realized what she was going to reveal. Her whole background—the story of a childhood tyrannized by abuse—flooded my mind.
I heard myself say, out loud, “Ruth, you’re not going to tell her that are you? Please, Ruth, you’ll be hurt!”
I began to cry at the pain and agony Ruth had endured. Tears trickled down my face and fell on my clenched hands.
I felt the overwhelming disappointment of her life—a life that explained her barbed replies to those who tried to get too close to her.
Then Ruth’s resolve coursed through me.
I lifted my hands to the keyboard, and her story unfolded with its own grace and graciousness.
My tears accompanied it.
When Ruth ended her story, she, too, cried.
I embraced her.
Truly, to understand all is to forgive all.
From then on I counted Ruth as an aspect of myself that I now understood and loved.
Writing, as you can see, is healing.